Karl Blossfeldt is best known for his magnified black-and-white images of plants and flowers. He was a German photographer, sculptor and teacher who worked in Berlin. Using his precise photographs, Blossfeldt revealed the sculptural qualities and textural details of each botanical subject. As a teenager he began his career as a sculptor and he completed an apprenticeship at the Art Ironworks and Foundry in Mägdesprung and then moved to Berlin to study ornamental design from 1884 to 1890 at the Kunstgewerbeschule (The Museum of Decorative Arts). From 1890 to 1896 he travelled through Greece, Italy and North Africa working for the artist Moritz Meurer, who theorized that natural forms were reproduced in art. From 1898 to 1931 Blossfeldt was a professor of design at the Kunstgewerbeschule where he taught the American sculptor Heinz Warneke. There Blossfeldt established an archive for his thousands of photographs that he used as an aid to teach his students about the ornamentation found in nature.
Blossfeldt was never formally trained as a photographer but he made a series of home-made cameras and fitted them with magnifying lenses that allowed him to photograph plant surfaces in unprecedented, magnified detail. This reflected his enduring interest in the repetitive patterns found in nature's textures and forms. By the 1920s, Blossfeldt's photographs had won him praise from the Neue Sachlichkeit photographers August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Blossfeldt's works were primarily used as teaching tools but his pictures achieved fame among the artistic avant-garde with the support of the gallerist Karl Nierendorf. Nierendorf mounted a solo show of Blossfeldt's pictures paired with African sculptures at his gallery in 1926 and in 1928 produced the first edition of Blossfeldt's monograph 'Urformen der Kunst' (Art Forms in Nature). Blossfeldt was 63 when 'Urformen der Kunst' quickly became an international bestseller and it made him famous almost overnight. Despite its intention to merely function as a teaching aid, it was quickly lauded as an important work of art. The abstract shapes and structures in nature that he revealed impressed his contemporaries with their clarity, precision and their presentation as essential forms in art and architecture. Following the enormous success of the book, Blossfeldt's work was a central feature of important exhibitions, including the 1929 shows 'Fotografie der Gegenwart' and 'Film und Foto'. Swiftly regarded as a seminal book on photography, Blossfeldt's objective and finely detailed imagery was praised by the writer Walter Benjamin, who compared Blossfeldt to Moholy-Nagy and the pioneers of New Objectivity. Benjamin ranked his achievements alongside the great photographers August Sander and Eugene Atget. The Surrealists also championed him and in 1929 Georges Bataille included his images in the periodical 'Documents'. In 1932 Blossfeldt published a second volume of his plant pictures, titled 'Wundergarten der Natur' (The Magic Garden of Nature).
Today, Blossfeldt's works are held in the collections of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., amongst others. In 2001 'Urformen der Kunst' was included in 'The Book of 101 Books' as one of the seminal photographic books of the twentieth century.
Blossfeldt once said: "The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form."